It’s eleven in the morning and the door rings for the third time.
Another parcel is dutifully photographed on my doorstep, like evidence at some sort of debt-ridden crime scene. The boxes have become so overwhelming that our overflowing recycling pile has to be split into a neighbour’s bin. My partner, usually laid-back, turns to me and asks a question I’ve been wondering myself.
“Why have we got so much stuff?”
You see, I’m guilty of emotional spending. The second I get sad, or feel almost any other emotion, I have a knee jerk reaction to shop. A need for retail therapy in lieu of actual therapy.
There are days where I forget what I’ve even ordered. A mix of panic and excitement befalls every knock at the door.
It’s a problem that I’ve had for as long as I can remember, though up until lockdown, I had it largely under control. Now, a combination of boredom, seemingly endless nights and days trapped between the same four walls, has led to YouTuber sized hauls of DIY candle kits, face masks and yoga pants. Things that will ‘help’, is how I sell it to myself – not that I need much convincing. Citing self-care as I tap ‘pay’ on my third Etsy order of the week, I wonder who I’m really trying to kid?
“I have a knee jerk reaction to shop, a need for retail therapy in lieu of actual therapy”
I’m not alone.
Despite so many us finding that we’re more financially unstable than ever, consumer debt and ‘buy now, pay later’ purchases, using systems such as Klarna, are rising fast. Back in April, the Institute of Fiscal Studies warned women were being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, courtesy of the industries they primarily populate. The irony that we’re the same demographic rapidly spiralling into an endless cycle of debt is not lost on me.
“I honestly can’t stop myself,” 28-year-old Cara* admits. “I spent over £300 on ASOS last month and maxed out my credit card. I just have no idea why I did it, I just felt like I needed more stuff? Like some new loungewear might make me feel better? My boyfriend doesn’t know. I hide the parcels in my wardrobe, but the guilt and shame of the whole thing keeps me up at night.”
And, it’s not just young women hitting ASOS who are overspending. It’s also a tricky time for new parents, like 33-year-old Chloe*, who went on maternity leave in March. Since her partner has returned to full-time work, she’s found being home alone tough.
“I’m both exhausted and bored. I can’t even go to my NCT baby classes and meet other parents because of lockdown, so I’ve taken to spending all day online. My daughter doesn’t need another sleepsuit, but it’s like a tic. It’s not like I’ve got the money to spend, that’s the irony. Maternity leave has meant a huge reduction in my salary, but I feel so alone. Buying stuff is pretty much all I’ve got at the moment.”
Chloe goes on to explain that her partner isn’t aware that she’s now in £4,000 of debt. “I don’t know how it got this bad. I can’t tell him. He works so hard to keep us going. Right now, I’m sort of just pretending that it’s not there. I know how stupid that sounds. But, I don’t know what else to do.”
Chloe’s secrecy isn’t abnormal. Back in 2017, the Financial Conduct Authority warned almost 37% per cent of UK adults keep financial secrets from their partners. The situation doesn’t seem to have improved, with four in ten now admitting to hiding a financial secret from their partners, according to new figures from the Money and Pensions Service.
Without our usual coping mechanisms of popping out with a friend or hitting the gym, we’ve seen a huge reduction in dopamine, the ‘happy hormone’, and buying things is an easy way for our brains to make up the deficit.
According to Harvard University researcher Jennifer Lerner and her colleagues, sadness makes a person impatient and willing to spend more. When a person is sad, they’re likely to give up something larger and with a future benefit, like more money, to have a smaller benefit, such as a new outfit, right now.
Experts agree that spending does boost our mood, and may even lessen anxiety in the moment. However, the long-term effect can be far more problematic. There’s a clear link between financial insecurity and mental health issues, and even the smallest debts can make us feel overwhelmed, anxious and stressed.
In a poll conducted in September this year, the debt charity StepChange found the number of Brits struggling with debt had nearly doubled since the first lockdown.
“1.2 million people faced serious issues, including falling behind on essential bills and using more credit to make debt repayments,” the organisation revealed, adding, “The number of those affected who have fallen behind on essentials or borrowed to make ends meet has increased from 4.6 to 5.6 million. We estimate that the amount of arrears and borrowing among this group attributable to the impact of coronavirus is £10.3 billion.”
So, how do you stop spending?
The first step to resolving emotional spending is acknowledging that you splurge when you’re sad. The second is to start removing temptation. Unsubscribing from marketing emails, taking regular social media breaks and finding other activities to keep you busy are all ways of instantly reducing your likelihood to emotionally spend.
It’s also worth having an honest conversation with a friend or your partner about your current financial status. From there, you can create a plan to tackle the debt. By approaching repayments methodically, taking a clear-sighted approach that removes denial, and with a do-able repayment plan, you will gradually get out of debt.
Regaining control might take a while, but research suggests the mere knowledge that you’re on top of things and chipping away towards your goal can go a long way to reducing feelings of fear, anxiety and insecurity. Essentially, taking the emotion out of emotional spending is the key to getting it under control.
Today is the first day there’s no knock at the door. No parcel being photographed, no cardboard shamefully shuffled next door. In fact, I’ve stopped shopping online altogether, or at least till I have a little more self-control. And, strangely, it feels just as exciting as the arrival of a new parcel.
If you’re struggling to repay debt, contact StepChange for advice and support in creating a repayment plan that can work for you.
*Names have been changed upon the request of contributors, to protect their anonymity